Waikato Chiefs surged to the top of the Super 15 southern hemisphere championship table when they beat Central Cheetahs 39-33 at Free State Stadium Saturday.
Three tries within seven minutes late in the second half enabled Chiefs to secure a bonus point and move two points ahead of Western Stormers on the combined table and five points in front of Otago Highlanders in the hotly-contested New Zealand conference.
Chiefs scored five tries to two by Cheetahs and always looked the more likely winners -- but they trailed 20-25 with 18 minutes to go after an intercept try by Ashley Johnson was followed by a penalty by Johan Goosen.
"It was a tough performance by the Cheetahs," said Chiefs captain Craig Clarke. "We knew they love to play an expansive game and they've got some good ball runners. We expected a tough game from them and we certainly got it."
Tongan international prop Sona Taumalolo scored two tries for the Chiefs, who also scored through right wing Lelia Masaga and centres Sonny Bill Williams and Richard Kahui.
Fly-half Aaron Cruden, who sparked numerous attacking moves, added four conversions and two penalties.
Both Cheetahs tries were scored by replacements, with flanker Johnson scoring seven minutes after coming on and fly-half Johan Goosen scoring in the corner a minute from time.
Goosen missed the conversion but after an extended series of phases after the final hooter, he landed a long-range penalty to enable the home side to earn a bonus point for a loss by seven points or fewer.
It was one of seven penalties kicked by the Cheetahs from as many attempts, with starting fly-half Sias Ebersohn landing four and Goosen three.
Chiefs dominated most phases of the game but only led 10-9 at half-time. They seemed set to take control when Taumalolo scored his first try to end a multi-phase attack by the visiting team which started within 10 metres of their own line.
They were attacking again when Johnson intercepted a pass 40 metres out and bullocked to the line.
Trailing by five points, the Chiefs twice opted to kick for touch five metres from the Cheetahs line after being awarded penalties and were rewarded the second time when Taumalolo finished off a forward drive.
Cruden missed the conversion but Williams put the Chiefs ahead when he twisted out of a tackle by Cheetahs centre Robert Ebersohn and stretched out to place the ball over the line.